Scrawled with a bloody knife: War and Anti-War Poems

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Opening epigraph

 

“That night in Venice, George and his death became a symbol to me—and still remain a symbol. Somehow or other we have to make these dead acceptable, we have to atone for them, we have to appease them.  How, I don’t quite know.  … Atonement—how can we atone? How can we atone for the lost millions and millions of years of life, how atone for those lakes and seas of blood?  Something is unfulfilled, and that is poisoning us.  It is poisoning me, at any rate, though I have agonized over it, as I now agonize over poor George, for whose death no other human being has agonized. What can we do?  Headstones and wreaths and memorials and speeches and the Cenotaph—no, no; it has got to be something in us. Somehow we must atone to the dead—the dead, the murdered, violently dead … The reproach is not from them, but in ourselves. Most of us don’t know it, but it is there, and poisons us.  It is the poison that makes us heartless and hopeless and lifeless. … ”

Death of a Hero. Richard Aldington.

Penguin Classics.  1929/2013.  p22

Introduction

Introduction

 

I am Tim Bagwell. I am the author of these poems.

The anger in them is mine. While the title’s reference to crafting them with a knife is, indeed, a metaphor, it is apt as the frame of reference in which I wrote them. The pain is real. I claim it. I live it daily. I use “knife” in the title to specifically convey to you, the reader, that these are not “nice” poems; these are not written to entertain anyone. They are an attempt to keep me alive (not a metaphorical statement) and to wake you up to what war does to people who are “lucky” enough to survive physically.  I want them to cut as I have been—and continue every day—to be cut.

I am a Marine Corps combat veteran of the American war in Vietnam. I enlisted at 17 and I was out of combat—and Vietnam—by age 19, meaning I have lived with post-traumatic stress my entire adult life. I was suffering from the disorder before it had its modern name, but it has always been part of the mental debris of every combat soldier who physically survived war no matter whether they talked about it or not.

I find the depth and tenacity of my anger enormously sad. As a general rule of my daily life, I hate people. It is what war taught me. I try to be good. I try to do good. But I always, always expect to fail. I always, always, expect others and my culture’s institutions to fail me. That is what war taught me. I try daily, hourly, to direct its demon forces, rooted and constantly replaying just below mindful consciousness, to push me to do everything I can to stop war, to never quit toward achieving this life goal; to fight and fight and fight to bring about a world where war is as publicly repugnant as an adult playing with his or her own feces.  I can conceive a world where it is so. I know it is possible. I do not believe war is anything but human choice.

In 1954, when I was four, C. Wright Mills published a book in which he presciently said the power elite running this country had already begun to turn to the military to run the world. This was the era of the “Cold War.” But, now, that “war” is over and yet feel how accurate Mills’ statement continues to be:

“…men in authority are talking about an ‘emergency’ without a foreseeable end. … The only seriously accepted plan for ‘peace’ is the fully loaded pistol. …  Peace is a mutual fright, a balance of armed fear.”[1]

Since September 2001, this fear has been renamed the “Global War on Terror.”

I vehemently argue there is a better way. We must change both our capitalist economies—which values monetary net worth above human beings—and our philosophy of life. Our world is falling apart and we are the people doing it. The US is the largest arms dealer on the globe, all of us are killing the earth with our waste, and we have absolutely no sense of our continuing overpopulation. It is time we change.

I stand with Grace Lee Boggs:

“To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more human human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.”[2]

I do not write passive poetry—a stylistic preference that has been and no-doubt will continue to be a point of critique.  Nor, do I feel anti-war poetry can be prettied up without losing its power to motivate people to action. While most of my “war” poetry can be considered passive and non-directive because it is my history, my anti-war poetry is everything except passive. If this is a problem for you, you will not like my work. If you like to have your poets play with their words, don’t read mine. I have a poem, included here, entitled “Political Bukowski” and, while it is not my most directive anti-war poem, it is animated by the straight-talking spirit of Charles Bukowski. I hope and intend that all of my anti-war poems are so forward, clear-spoken and boldly directive.

Ann Jones, in her just released book “They were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—The Untold Story,” understands the tremendous need for clear language, language that must hurt to read because it comes from war. “It’s a perfect conspiracy of silence,” she writes, arising from America’s refusal to look straight into the ugly face of what war is and what war does. 

“… an inability to use plain English to name what happens in war when we’re so well trained to speak of war in the elevated locutions of patriotism, heroism, and godliness that have little to nothing to do with the thing itself. The worst we can say of war is that it is ‘unspeakable,’ which in fact it is not. But we don’t speak of it because that would involve so many nasty words we don’t want to use and elicit so many things we don’t want to know, so many things we think we can’t do anything about now that the government answers only to the powerful few … ” [3]

There are few secular books I have come across that have had a lasting impact on the world.  One of those few is Henry Durant’s The Battle of Solferino[4], which articulated the ideas and ideals underlying today’s Red Cross and Red Crescent. That single slim volume motivated a world-wide organization that we all should cherish and actively support.

Says Hazard (sic) Adams in The Offense of Poetry:  “… great poetry is itself offensive and … readers must confront and pass through the offense, which is a moment of challenge, crisis, and decision generated out of the prevailing cultural view of language …”

 I can only hope my words might have a similar impact. I’m trying as transparently and creatively as possible to stop war. For me as a poet, whenever my politics and pretty words clash, I go with the politics.  For this reason, I don’t like Brian Turner’s Insignia[5], but I love the ending of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Interrogation of the Good”:

“Hear us then: we know

You are our enemy. This is why we shall

Now put you in front of a wall. But in consideration of your merits and

good qualities

We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you

With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you

With a good shovel in the good earth.”[6]

 

Again, the poems that follow are my poems, my words, my pain. I do not apologize for a single one, but nor do I ask anyone to “like” them. If you want entertainment, don’t look to me. I write them so that you—whoever you are, where ever you are—and I will act, daily, to stop war. If these poems do not do that they are worthless words.

I hope they are not, but only your actions—you changing you and your community for the better—will make them so.

 

Tim

 

P.S.  If you want to tell me about your actions, write me at bagwelltimothymarvin@gmail.com


 


[1] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. 1956/2000. Oxford University Press, pps.184-5.

[2] Grace Lee Boggs, p. 292, The Verso Book of Dissent. Edited by Andrew Hsiao and Andrea Lim. New York: Verso. (Italic in the original.)

[3] Ann Jones, p. 96, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—The Untold Story. New York/Chicago: Dispatch Books and Haymarket Books.

[4] Henry Dunant. A Memory of Solferino. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross. 1939/1959.

[5] Brian Turner, Pps. 64-65. Phantom Noise. Farmington, MA: Alice James Books, 2010.

[6] Quoted in Violence by Slavoj Zizek. London: Profile Books, p.33.

Contents

Contents

 

Introduction

 

PTSD: A Blood orchid from American-made dystopian mud

War, No. 1                                                                              

On good days—Straight from the reprobate                          

On bad days—Screed, screed: I cut, you bleed                                  

War and Anti-war Poems

                                    A sweep of knives and questions                                           

                                    America, the United States thereof                                        

                                    Blackout                                                                                 

                                    Can a poem be a war?                                                             

                                    Combat debris                                                                        

Corpses, corpses                                                                     

Desensitization using A. Ginsberg’s ‘American Sentence’     

FNG                                                                                       

Going to sleep                                                                        

How much reality can I take?                                                 

I died in Vietnam                                                                    

I sing a song that will get me killed                                        

I want to write love poems                                                     

Just another one of the dead                           

Killing for god and country is murder—always                      

Let’s say … I assassinated him                                                           

Lifer in the war against war                                                    

Lucidity: A prose poem                                                          

Manifesto howled in the surditorium                                      

Not Cherokee enough to read broken jungle                          

Pearls, pierced and dark with bitter gold                                

Political Bukowski                                                                 

Secular stupas of stupidity                                                      

Shrinking senior senator                                                                     

Sitting zazen at Auschwitz-Birkenau                                                              

Somewhere in the A Shau                                                                  

                                    Staying awake                                                                         

                                    Struggles                                                                                 

                                    The unvarnished truth is all the puzzle I want                                   

                                    The weight on my heart                                                          

                                    War, No. 2                                                                              

                                    War, No. 3                                                                              

                                    We built a wall for 58,195                                                      

Enough for now

                                    Zen of No-War                                                                       

                                    Meditating in a combat zone                                                  

Desensitized still?                                                                                           

Enso, No. 1-3                                                                                                             

War, No. 1

War, No. 1

 

My American war was long ago.

Still, Moloch’s embers flare daily—lightning bolts

striking my grey-haired head, tearing once more my three eyes:

beauty raped,

life scorned,

love defiled.

No one told me war wounds eternal.

Tell your kids,

tell your neighbors.

On good days–Straight from the reporbate

On good days — Straight from the reprobate

Whitman sang a song of himself, self-publishing grassy leaves and setting the world aflame.

Emerson was an elite word-player, looking for meaning without getting muddy.

Hawthorne wrote political lies for Jimmy Polk’s imperial invasion of Mexico.

Thoreau, at least, was jailed for not paying taxes. (His mother paid them the very next day!)

Me? I’m a happy reprobate—bowing humbly to the old Latinate: ‘one who reproves’—

carping with hot consternation at those who, with blind and blinkered eyes, trail after evil’s

easy, please-y morsels, spending more at Starbucks daily than many elsewhere have for food.

I’ve no pretensions—I’m not a Whitman, an Emerson, or a Thoreau;

I’m certainly not an old Nate Hawthorne. I’m a tired grunt Marine from

the American war in Vietnam, lugging my frayed bulging rucksack over hither and yon,

planting anti-war apple seeds deep in the dirt called America.

On bad days–Screed, screed: I cut, you bleed

On bad days — Screed, screed: I cut, you bleed

I hate that I went to war for you. It ruined my life.

After more than 40 years of wandering the American wilderness …

I’ve reached these sad conclusions, my friend:

I was willing to physically give up my life for you.

I was naïve and full of teenage hubris.

Now I know … You don’t deserve my sacrifice.

Every adult around me encouraged me in my delusion,

or, if they had doubts, did not counsel me from my moral certainty.

You were willing and complicit that I should throw my life away.

Now I know … You don’t deserve the sacrifice of others.

You are unconscionably ignorant of the military history of your own country,

of its lies and deceits, of its wars of racist atrocities,

its strivings for empires to bloat the rich and the bigoted.

Now I know … You don’t deserve those who have fought for you.

Your myth of exceptionalism—we ‘Americans’ are sine qua non

on the face of the earth—is nothing but night dirt,

built upon the hard fact of flagrantly schooled self-deception.

Now I know … You don’t deserve those who have done your killing.

You are immorally ignorant of how your soldiers step arrogantly

onto foreign soil. You train them to disdain everything indigenous,

killing first and asking/answering questions only if forced.

Now I know … You don’t deserve those who have died for you.

I rue this country.

I rue this culture.

Don’t you dare be surprised by my anger.

A sweep of knives and questions

A sweep of knives and questions

 

“This brutality … was a war crime, plain and simple; a war crime witnessed by American officers. A U.S. serviceman standing by while an ally tortures a prisoner is itself an offense punishable under both customary law of war and U.S. military law contained in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But in the U.S. (military) units in South Vietnam, such acts were not unusual. Generals would deny it, colonels and majors may doubt it, but any captain or lieutenant and any enlisted infantryman who was there will confirm it.”                                                      

Son Thang: An American War Crime. Solis, 1997, pps. 13-14.

 

 

 

Something inside me shattered hard that night. I was 18.

***

We had walked south all day, stepping with worn and weary boots

through the A Shau Valley: Vietnam, 1969.

About midmorning, I step wide, over a discarded, nationless skull.

We find him later: a North-Viet soldier, near-death and left behind.

We carry him, littered, into the glowering, lowering sun. 

Later—my hands dirty, my nails broken, my body stinking—I sit on the edge

of my hole and watch them stick him beside a bare open grave.

They—Americans and their Vietnamese scouts—sweep sharp

questions and sharp knives across his ebbing body.

Too far away to hear anything spoken—

I watch wide-eyed as Americans torture and murder.

***

On quiet nights I still feel my heart breaking apart. I am 63.